Team Dynamics: Revisiting Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games is the fifth novel in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. When I was asked to revisit Nemesis Games for Tor.com, I went happily back to one of my favorite summer reads of 2015 to examine the novel in the context of itself as well as the upcoming television adaptation.

The Expanse, as TV viewers new to the books will come to recognize it, is already making waves online as episodes release digitally and the wider Syfy release approaches in December. Although a second series has already been ordered, it’s up in the air as to whether we’ll ever get to the point where Nemesis Games, five books deep in what looks to be a very long, epic science fiction series, will make it to television. Hollywood, after all, is fickle. Of course, I hope it does because after the second book in the series, Caliban’s War, Nemesis Games is my favorite book in this universe. The story is bursting with amazing things to bring to the screen, from human drama to planet-altering events.

Some series/book spoilers.

Nemesis Games tells its story by using shifting points of view. In previous books, the points of view were often one-off characters that show us the perspective of each group, combined with our anchor character, James Holden. However, in Nemesis Games there’s a POV shake up: for the first time, each perspective hones in on one of Holden’s fellow crew members on the Rocinante. They all watch the burgeoning conflict explode into catastrophic violence, while dealing with their own personal circumstances caused by the upheaval.

The brilliant move of this book is that Holden and his crew are all scattered across the solar system by events early in the novel. Holden is on a space station with the leader of the Outer Planets Alliance, struggling with an attack on the station. Alex is on Mars and is folded into a dangerous political mystery along with Bobbie Draper, who we met in Caliban’s War. Amos is on Earth tying up loose ends from his past and ends up trapped when the planet is attacked. Naomi is held prisoner on a spaceship by the people planning to start a war, as huge chunks of her past are finally revealed to the reader. The book is about whether or not the characters can successfully come back to each other when the world as they know it is ending and make the crew—and the family they’ve built—whole again. If they can, how will they have to change and what compromises will they have to make to do so?

It’s hard to say what elements might change as the previous books are adapted. How the narrative of the books is folded into the adaptation will obviously influence how screenwriters and directors approach this particular story. But The Expanse has something that has made previous shows set in space (or space-adjacent settings) successful: a solid core team that cares deeply for each other when death is one airlock away, a through line that can be followed and nurtured through every single season, from Leviathan Wakes onward. Even when the anchor character, Holden, is a little boring, he’s buoyed up by how he plays off his crewmates and friends, and I expect the actor portraying the captain in the adaptation can potentially create more empathy and interest in his character for those of us fatigued by yet another Heroic Sci-Fi Action Dude.

The success of previous franchises like Stargate or shows like Firefly was largely tied to the dynamics of the core team, which eventually became a found family: close-knit, deeply loyal to one another, with a determination to stay together, and come out on the other side of conflict. The Expanse adaptation, if handled right, can follow this trend and carry us through to Nemesis Games, where we really see these relationships begin to become important narratively, but where they’re also tested. We’ve followed the Rocinante’s adventures via Holden and we know how he feels about his crew, but here we finally get to see how his crew feels about him, each other, and their own complicated circumstances. This book provides an excellent blueprint for a show to use that dynamic to make a fascinating, tense, and elaborate season of television by really playing on the interpersonal drama and desire these characters have to finally get back to each other.

Nemesis Games is a very cinematic story—with drastically different settings for each character, it will give anyone adapting it to a visual medium a lot to work with. It also tells very personal, intimate stories with a deft hand. I can’t wait to see how the show deepens the characterization for supporting characters to further build out the world. The one aspect I worry about, here, is the one place where I feel the series often stumbles: representation of women, women’s issues, and their relationships with each other. Nemesis Games deals with quite a few women’s issues, including motherhood, emotional abuse by a romantic partner, and abduction. The book handles them well enough, but whenever you have the chance to shift these complicated interactions to a visual medium, there’s a high likelihood of losing some of the nuance, given that there’s more space for development in a book, whereas a television show might not be able to render these issues as clearly.

Additionally, every male point of view in the book has the man engaging with another woman, which highlights a problem that a lot of media has: women are in the story, but they don’t have connections or relationships with each other, only other men. It gets doubly hard because these characters are older and many of them are struggling with mental health issues and dark pasts while separated from the secure home life they’ve managed to build over the years: how do you represent this thoroughly in a visual medium? There’s so much space for success. But there’s also space for the adaptation to miss hitting the emotional core, both within and between the characters, that drives the novels and gives us our main reason to care about the sorry state of the universe in The Expanse: because these are characters we love and they have to live it in.

I’m tentatively hopefully, though, after having seen the first episode, that the beginning of the series can create a good foundation on which the showrunners can continue to build a complicated world full of politics, aliens, spaceship battles, and nuanced, complicated people. If the Powers That Be behind the show can combine those things without forgetting to also make it a diverse world, both in the main cast as well as in the background, I feel like we’ll have a brilliant science fiction series on our hands.

Renay Williams stumbled into online fandom, fanfiction, and media criticism via Sailor Moon in 1994. Since then, she’s become an editor at Lady Business and a co-host of Fangirl Happy Hour. She can be found having emotions over the lives of fictional characters on Twitter @renay.

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